Appreciating the small things: A New York family’s journey with CHD

The Harris family at jack Jr.'s graduation. Both Jack Jr. and his father have congenital heart disease.
The Harris family at Jack Jr.'s high school graduation.

The Harris family of Monroe, New York, are no strangers to congenital heart disease (CHD). Eighteen-year-old Jack Jr. grew up living with CHD, but had always been active. His father, Jack Sr., had also lived an active adulthood, completely unaware of his future CHD diagnosis. When they each found themselves in need of heart surgery, this close-knit family made the life-changing decision to travel to Boston for care at Boston Children’s Heart Center.

Jack, the super athlete

As an infant, Jack had been diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve, aortic stenosis, and mild regurgitation. But that never stopped him from playing sports, and playing hard. Basketball was his passion, but he also played baseball, rarely taking a break.

So in 2018, when his local cardiologist told him he would have to give up basketball and exercise due to his heart condition and an abnormally functioning aortic valve that needed surgery, Jack Jr. and his parents knew they wanted a second opinion.

Jack Jr. in his hospital bed recovering after heart surgery to repair his aortic valve.
An avid athlete, Jack chose to have heart surgery instead of giving up sports.

They turned to the expertise of Boston Children’s cardiologist Dr. Roger Breitbart and cardiac surgeon, Dr. Christopher Baird.

At the time, Dr. Baird was the only pediatric cardiac surgeon in the country who was performing the Ozaki procedure. This surgery creates a new heart valve out of the patient’s own heart tissue, rather than implanting an artificial valve, offering better long-term results. Faced with the choice to have surgery or give up sports, it was a no-brainer for Jack Jr. He decided to have surgery so he could continue to pursue his passion for basketball.

When Jack Jr. met Dr. Baird for the first time, he left feeling confident he would be in excellent hands. “Dr. Baird definitely makes you feel like he is going to take care of you,” he says. His mom, Wendy, also felt comforted by the Heart Center’s expertise. “I thought, my 16-year-old son is going through surgery, and it makes a world of difference having a care team like this.”

Jack Jr. had surgery on May 21, 2018. At the time he was discharged, he held the record for the shortest length of stay post-operation. To celebrate, he made sure to stop at Shake Shack on his way home to New York. He was back on the basketball court training again three months later, and returned to school that September.

Jack Sr. stands in his hospital room wearing a bathrobe after surgery for his rare heart condition. He is giving a thumbs up sign.
When Jack Sr. was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, he turned to the team at Boston Children’s.

A surprising diagnosis

A few months later, just when the Harris family started to reclaim a sense of normalcy in their lives, Jack Sr. went in for a stress test after feeling dizzy. Further testing discovered a rare heart condition, in which he has two coronary arteries on one side of his heart.

“The doctor told me, ‘You need surgery right away. I don’t know how you’re alive,’” says Jack Sr. “I was completely taken aback.” He had been living with this condition his entire life and was completely unaware of it.

After meeting with a local cardiac surgeon who recommended a form of bypass surgery, he decided to reach out to Dr. Baird for a second opinion. Dr. Baird offered to perform the surgery himself, and the Harris family found themselves back in Boston.

Jack Sr. became a patient of cardiologist Dr. Michelle Gurvitz of the Adult Congenital Heart (BACH) Program at Boston Children’s. He scheduled his surgery next door at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on February 21, 2019 — exactly nine months to the day of his son’s heart surgery. For Jack Sr.’s procedure, Dr. Baird partnered with Dr. Prem Shekar, chief cardiac surgeon of Brigham and Women’s.

“When my husband went in for surgery,” says Wendy, “I was sitting in a corner at the hospital, looked out the window, and saw the exact corner I sat in during my son’s surgery at Boston Children’s. It was a sign that everything was going to be okay.”

Jack Jr. is pushed by his father on the roof deck of the hospital after his heart valve surgery.
Jack Jr. and his dad take a spin on the roof deck of the hospital after his surgery in 2018.

A strengthened bond

After his surgery, Jack Jr. now takes basketball, school, and family more seriously. Although the COVID-19 pandemic altered his college plans to move closer to Boston, Jack is thriving in his first semester of online classes, staying physically fit, and working part time. “Through all of this,” says Wendy, “he just pauses, reflects, and pivots as necessary. There has never been a moment of self pity or negativity.”

After overcoming their challenges with CHD, the Harris family has an unbreakable bond. They enjoy going to the beach, where they proudly show their scars, watching basketball on TV, and chatting about their days at the kitchen table.  

“We all appreciate the small things a lot more and take nothing for granted,” says Wendy. “This is a family you will never take down.”

Learn more about the Department of Cardiac Surgery and the BACH Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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